Unbelievably Mary Shelley wrote the novel Frankenstein at the age of eighteen. This great work captures the imaginations of its readers. Frankenstein remains one of the greatest examples of Gothic literature. Unlike other Gothic novels of the time, however, Frankenstein also includes elements of Romantic writing, and therefore cannot be classified as soley Gothic. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was an English novelist. The daughter of the British philosopher William Godwin and the British author and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Born in London in 1797, Mary was privately educated.
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She met the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in May 1814, and two months later she left England with him. When Shelley’s first wife died in December 1816, he married Mary. Mary’s first and most important work, the novel Frankenstein, was begun on Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816 as her contribution to a ghost-story competition. A remarkable accomplishment for such a young writer, Frankenstein was a success. No other work by Mary Shelley achieved the popularity or excellence of this first work, although she wrote four other novels, books of travel sketches, and miscellaneous tales.
In 1818 the Shelley’s left England for Italy, where they stayed until Shelley’s death. Only one of Mary’s and Percy’s children survived, Percy Florence, and in 1823 Mary returned to England with him and concentrated on his education and welfare. The image of Mary Shelley presented by the biographers suggests an intensely private, imaginatively exuberant, yet also emotionally withdrawn figure, whose political melancholy and strong religious faith are intriguingly at odds with the optimistic rationalism of her famous parents, and her poet husband’s atheistic radicalism.
The story of Frankenstein begins in the polar ice of the Arctic Circle. The ship of an English explorer, Walton, is trapped in the ice and is unable to travel. During the day the men on board spotted a sledge, driven by a huge man and drawn by dogs followed by Victor Frankenstein, a man in very poor condition. Walton nursed him back to health as the stranger told Walton his story. Victor Frankenstein was born in Geneva and at an early age showed promise in the natural sciences. Victor was sent to a university when he grew older, and that’s where he stumbled on to the secret of creating life.
With great brilliance Victor created an eight-foot monster and gave him life through electricity. Once Victor had realized what he had done he panicked and left the creature. When the creature wondered into the city everyone he met screamed and ran away. Finally the creature found a place to live in a cottage outside the city. Through observation of the family in the cottage the monster began to learn the ways of man. In doing so the monster longed for friendship, but everyone he encountered was repulsed by him. This repulsion caused the monster to become bitter and angry towards men.
The monster’s anger caused him to murder William, Victor’s brother. The monster makes a horrible demand on Victor, to create a companion to give the monster love and friendship. Victor did not go through with the demand, and for punishment the monster kills Clerval, Victor’s friend and Elizabeth, Victor’s wife. Victor vows that he will chase the monster until the monster’s death. Victor died in the frozen North, and the monster disappeares into the ice field. As the before mentioned events show the Gothic novel was a late eighteenth-century revival of the tale of terror.
One of the earliest and best-known Gothic novels was Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto , a scary story about a castle terrorized by a giant. Another contributor to Gothicism is Clara Reeve who wrote The Old English Barron , which she considered to be an improvement on Walpole’s novel. Then came Frankenstein. The first Gothic characteristic of Frankenstein is evident in its grotesque elements. To create life Victor had to use the bodies of dead humans. At night Victor would secretly steal the bodies from their resting place and take them to his chamber.
Victor would take the body part from the deceased that he needed and would cut it off. He would then attach the part to his creation, the monster. The description of the monster at its moment of coming alive is hideous : His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of lustrous black and flowing, his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but those luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes and straight black lips. The monster’s yellow skin, watery eyes, and black lips help add terror to the story and are examples of grotesque elements.
Another characteristic of the Gothic novel in Frankenstein is the mystery. In the book Mary Shelly never tells the reader how Frankenstein is really created. We know that Victor used the limbs of dead bodies to create the body of the monster, but we never found out how the monster was brought to life. It is also a mystery that the monster was able to follow Victor everywhere he went. How did the monster know that Victor was going back to his home in England, and how would the monster be able to travel the great distance? These are elements of mystery that can’t be answered.
A characteristic that is in many Gothic novels is the desolate environment. As you remember the story of Frankenstein begins and ends in the arctic ice. In the beginning of the story, Walloon’s ship is surrounded by ice and can’t move. The crew is trapped for many days. Victor is confined to a desolate place when he is trying to carry out his experiment. Victor restricts himself inside his laboratory that contains human body parts. At the end of the story Victor dies in the freezing and depressing location of the arctic. The monster also is part of a desolate environment.
While the monster is learning the ways of humans he is confined to the small enclosure of a cottage, and is only able to leave the cottage at night. The story of Frankenstein also makes use of fear. Once Victor put life into the monster no one knows what’s going to happen. Fear wasn’t really an element of the story though, until the monster murders William. If the monster is brutal enough to murder a child then he is capable of doing anything. Fear is an element all the way through the book after William’s death. Mary Shelley is a great example of a writer who is the product of the Romantic era.
This movement began in Germany with writers such as Goethe, who created the Romantic concept of Faust, yet the movement dominated the Western literature for many years. Since Mary Shelley was so familiar with the great writers of the Romantic era, it is easy to see that her work would reflect the trend. The major characteristic of Romanticism that Mary Shelley uses is the examination of senses and inner feelings. In the beginning of the story Victor contemplates his experiment: … soon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose.
So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein,- more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation. Throughout the book Victor examines his feelings about the monster he created. The monster also examines his feelings and senses through the book. The creature explains: A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, smelt, heard, and felt at the same time; and it was indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses.
At the time of the monster’s creation it had only basic emotions and feelings. He gradually learned senses, like temperature through playing with fire. Through great effort the monster was able to learn intelligent matters, such as reading and writing. Almost every scene in Frankenstein deals with some aspect of emotion. The adoption of underprivileged children, the death of William, and the devotion of Victor and Elizabeth are examples of scenes dominated by emotions. Clearly you can see that Mary Shelley was successful in creating a Gothic novel that includes elements of Romanticism